Judaism & The Black Community: Tensions and Ties
By Maya Shavit
Whether it echoes in the room from a grandparent’s lips or is extracted from actions of a criminal who committed a hate crime, Jewish and Black Americans, particularly young ones who have been united as a connected and informed new generation, have always felt an unspoken tension. Why is it that these two communities are pitted against each other as the racism in America is thrust into the spotlight and the legitimacy of antisemitism is questioned?
Initially, the Black and Jewish communities were not too far away from each other. In the 1960s, as the Civil Rights Movement came to the forefront of discussion in America, fearless Black leaders were almost always accompanied by outspoken rabbis. When Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, his Jewish ally, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and many of his Jewish friends stood beside him in protest against Black oppression. In 1965, Dr. King summed up his feelings against antisemitism by stating that “our Jewish friends have demonstrated their commitment to the principle of tolerance and brotherhood not only in the form of sizable contributions, but in many other tangible ways, and often at great personal sacrifice.” Three years later, Dr. King was assassinated a week before he was due to attend Heschel’s Passover seder.
When Dr. King was murdered, the Civil Rights Movement was handed down to leaders who saw the Jewish and Black peoples as competitors for a spot in America’s middle class. Jewish people, no longer identified as their own race in the modern age, entered profitable fields and slowly merged into mainstream society, while the poverty disparity between Black and white Americans only increased. An image was placed into the minds of community participants by fearful leaders: only one minority could be accepted into Christian, white, America, and it would be the one that most easily fit into the preconceived standards of society that the media perceived as acceptable because of a common color of skin.
Today, intolerant and ignorant voices, like the Nation of Islam’s leader Louis Farrakhan, look down on Jewish people and other groups like the LGBTQ+ community with “anti-white theology.” Some of Farrakhan’s most disturbing remarks include calling Jews “satanic” and “termites.” Farrakhan thrives on hate as he persists in putting forward repulsive stereotypes, which lead his followers to believe some of the vicious rhetoric. His speech fuels antisemitism and revives hateful tropes that have been around since well before the Holocaust. People should understand that the parallels between the Jewish community and the Black community have always been apparent from history’s standpoint, with some slave songs during the antebellum era alluding to baby Moses and other imagery that references the biblical struggle Jews faced. Additionally, Black and Jewish community leaders often forget the many people who defy stereotypes by being a part of both distinct communities today. According to Stanford University, 12-15% of American Jews in 2020 are people of color, and that number is only growing. Hate crimes continue to affect both communities and often cross into both minorities, such as in the case in June of the tragic burning of Althea Bernstein, a young Black, Jewish woman whose face and neck were set on fire by four white men, as she sat in her car, allegedly in a hate crime.
However, there is one crucial distinction between the communities: a hateful person can identify a Black American much more easily than he can identify a typical Ashkenazi Jew. Moreover, inequality for Black civilians in America still noticeably bleeds into society today through places like the incarceration system in America, disproportionately affecting Black members of society. Regardless of speeches like Farrakhan’s, Jewish values have led various community leaders to feel that it is only right that Jewish activists bring their voices to the table, as a nation that has experienced hate in the past and still feels antisemitism lingering in the air. They feel that no one, especially someone affiliated with a group that has faced discrimination, can let inequalities persist, especially when brutality and violence are apparent. Such community leaders do not believe that the ideals of “The Land of the Free'' are lived up to, particularly when speaking in terms of the Black community. Ultimately, to say the journey each person of color takes in America is the same experience as that of a typical white Jew today, would be false. Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, is one of Judaism’s most important values, and it most definitely includes exiling racism.